Sleep Debt & Headaches: A Primer

Find out just how much inadequate sleep could be costing you.

Just like in your financial life, your sleep life shouldn’t suffer from debt. But signs point to sleep deprivation being a real problem: It is estimated that 40% of Americans don’t get enough sleep.(1)
Over time, this chronic loss of sleep can add up to “sleep debt.”(2)

What’s that mean for headache sufferers? Possibly, more headaches, since lack of sleep can be both a headache and migraine trigger. Learn more about sleep debt here, plus tips on how to head off that head pain. 

Sleep Debt Math

Think of it this way: You “spend” mental and physical energy all week, so you need to “pay” your body back with the recommended 7 to 9 hours(2) of sleep per night. Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you need and the amount of sleep you actually get.(3) For instance: Let’s say you’re missing 2 hours of sleep you need each work night, so when the weekend rolls around, you’ve got 10 hours of sleep debt.(4) Sleeping two extra hours each day on the weekend still leaves you with 6 hours of sleep debt,(4) and trying to repay it all on the weekend could even lead to a “weekend headache”.

Adding Up the Cost 

Besides potentially increasing headaches, sleep debt can affect other parts of your life – including your memory and mood(5). More research is needed, but long-term, sleep loss has been shown to have health impacts, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.(2,3

What Can You Do?

Luckily, there are some straightforward ways to get some much-needed sleep debt recovery.(4)

Try adding in an extra hour or so of sleep each night of the week, so that a small remaining debt can be finished off on the weekend with, say, an extra 3 hours.(6)

Chronic sleep debt can’t be repaid easily in a normal week,(4) so taking a vacation with a light schedule can provide that necessary chance to kill the alarm and sleep each night until you awake naturally the next day.(6)

Once you’ve found out how much sleep is right for you, stick to a routine and make it a part of your daily life to avoid falling into another cycle of sleep debt.(6)

Check out our tips to help you create a healthy sleep pattern, and maintain good sleep hygiene throughout your week. If you feel as though irregular sleep may be triggering your headaches, keeping a headache diary can help identify whether or not this is a culprit.

Show References

Hide References

1.    Jeffrey M. Jones. (2013) In U.S., 40% Get Less Than Recommended Amount of Sleep. Gallup Inc.

2.    National Sleep Foundation. Myths and Facts about Sleep.

3.    Aric A. Prather, M.S., Anna L. Marsland, Ph.D., RN, Martica Hall, Ph.D., Serina A. Neumann,

Ph.D., Matthew F. Muldoon, M.D., MPH, and Stephen B. Manuck, Ph.D. (2009) Normative Variation in Self-reported Sleep Quality and Sleep Debt is Associated with Stimulated Pro-inflammatory Cytokine Production. Biol Psychol. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2009.04.008.

4.    Molly Webster. Can You Catch Up on Lost Sleep? (2008) Scientific American

5.    Motomura Y, Kitamura S, Oba K, Terasawa Y, Enomoto M, et al. (2013) Sleep Debt Elicits Negative Emotional Reaction through Diminished Amygdala-Anterior Cingulate Functional Connectivity. PLOS ONE 8(2): e56578. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056578

6.    The Family Health Guide.  (2007) Repaying Your Sleep Debt. Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School

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